There is a story handed down in my husband’s family about a great aunt who dined grandly until the day she died. Very reminiscent of Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy character, this Southern, Jewish, relentlessly genteel lady served full, formal meals, always in the dining room, always prepared by her cook and presented by her ancient, uniformed black butler.
I’m told that she insisted on preheated dinner plates and sent any that failed her touch test back for re-warming. She demanded proper table manners even from the extended family’s youngest children, and, in fact, didn’t invite the little ones to dine with her until she deemed them old enough to act “civilized.”
Of course, parents in the clan carefully prepped their children in advance of visits to her table, but my husband’s now long-departed Uncle Louis (his mother’s oldest brother) on one occasion was apparently too irrepressible to follow the rules. After quickly surveying the various menu choices he scowled and said, “Humph, everything I don’t like, and nothing that I do like!”
Louis was immediately banished not only from Aunt Ida’s table, but from her house for a month. My husband’s grandparents were mortified, but Louis was unfazed, although he took care never to announce his food preferences in her presence again.
I’m sure one reason I love the Uncle Louis story is that he blurted out what I often thought but was never cheeky enough to say. I, too, was expected to eat and pretend to like whatever was served in relatives’ homes—under penalty of death (or possibly something more painful!). I remember exchanging secret horrified looks with my little sister as we took our first bite of a curried clam and tomato aspic served by a family friend known for “setting a fancy table.” It was by far the strangest, most challenging dish we’d ever confronted to that point. I can also vividly recollect my mother’s knowing, piercing stare warning us to say nothing, just to eat and smile!
Which leads me to this list, in which I’m going to finally—decades later and with every member of my personal manners’ police now gone to the grave—stop pretending to smile and say what I really think about certain foods. In fact, it’s relatively short and contains none of the usual vegetable suspects. Except for Jerusalem artichokes, which are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes but bland, fibrous tubers often (rightly) used for animal feed, I’ve never met a veggie I didn’t like. Here, mostly in random order, are the things I hope I’m not forced to eat again, at least not while smiling.
Rice pudding: Yes, I know many people find this plain, thrifty dish innocuous, even appealing, but in my opinion it’s the worst thing that ever happened to either rice or pudding. It turns the rice mushy and sweet—which is an unforgiveable thing to do to good rice. And it introduces nasty little starch pieces into what would otherwise be a smooth, succulent, mildly pleasant pudding. On several occasions when my mother served it, I tried to suck up the custard part and spit the rice bits into my napkin, but, of course, I got caught. The only saving grace was that because this disgusting stuff was considered “dessert,” I was allowed to (politely) decline it in the future. I have not since touched it to my lips, and fervently hope I’m never trapped at a table where it’s served. (For a home-style dessert I do like, see my blueberry-apple crumble or apple crisp.)
Oyster stew: I like crisp-fried oysters and I like most soups and stews, but this wretched concoction could easily be mistaken for rubber bands floating in tepid milk. (Close your eyes next time you try it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The broth is invariably flavorless and dishwatery, and the cooking turns the mollusks as chewy as conch or octopus, or, yes, rubber bands (all of which are too short on flavor and too long on mastication to enjoy). I’m guessing that somebody, somewhere might make a passable oyster stew, but with the opportunity to fry up these babies and toss them into a po’ boy instead, why would any sensible soul waste the oysters or effort to try?
Caviar: No, it’s not that I’m squeamish about eating fish eggs, and it’s not the faint fishy odor and flavor that bother me either. As a child I happily consumed both baked shad and fried fresh shad roe every spring when these fat, silvery Atlantic ocean beauties came in to spawn in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries and then over-filled our fish markets. But unless I take it in very small quantities, caviar is so unbearably salty that I develop a raging thirst gallons of water can’t slake. (Country ham affects me the same way, but it tastes so ethereal I’m willing to endure the day or two of misery.)
Since caviar isn’t normally dished up in abundance, I can usually tolerate it well, but a few years back at a food journalists’ convention I found myself at a caviar tasting facing a whole series of small glistening mounds, each said to be rarer and proffered with more fanfare than the last. With some justification our hosts believed they were bestowing priceless jewels upon us, and I knew that declining the gifts or leaving them untouched would be unspeakably rude. Fortunately, baking colleague Rose Levy Berenbaum, an ardent caviar fan, happened to be seated next to me. She was thrilled with all the little sodium-laden lumps I surreptitiously scraped onto her plate.
Hominy: Just to be clear, I’m not talking grits here. I’m talking about the popcorn-size, slimy, weird-tasting grayish blobs that some folks serve in place of potatoes or pasta or try to doctor up in a casserole with cheese. Hah! I hated hominy the first time I put it in my mouth, and later, after I learned that it was dried corn made “palatable” by soaking it in lye in a process called nixtamalization (no, I’m not making up the lye part!), I realized I didn’t need to say another thing to justify my aversion.
Actually, a few years ago at a culinary convention I was served a well-seasoned pork posole—posole is a Mexican-Spanish word cleverly designed to conceal from English speakers the fact that it’s hominy—and truthfully, I didn’t abhor the dish. It was cooked in the gorgeous micacious pots shown in the pic, which is probably what persuaded me to upgrade this “food” from the I-can’t-eat-that to the I’d-rather-not category.
Pigs’ feet: I’ve saved the worst for last. These should be declared unfit for human consumption! I’ll start simply by mentioning that though human and dog feet can reek they are roses compared to hog’s feet on the funkiness scale. In an effort to mask the noxious odor and tenderize the tough tissue of these porky appendages, people usually boil them in a strong vinegar brine, but this is as helpful as dousing the living creatures with perfume. Moreover, the boiling yields a gelatinous texture and ghastly, pungent odor that lurks in the house and continues to punch you in the nose for days: In the autumn, when my parents and cousins usually gathered to cook pigs’ feet, I tried to stay outside all day and at night slept with a spread over my face in a desperate, though completely futile attempt to block out the stench.
I do understand and appreciate the tradition of conservation and thrift driving the consumption of “trash” parts like pigs’ feet. In the Maryland farming country where I grew up, people generally tried make use of “everything but the oink,” when they slaughtered hogs. Which is, of course, what accounts for scrapple and chitins and other “delicacies” that those who can afford (literally) to eat “higher on the hog,” prefer to skip. That said, while I think I could subsist on all the other items listed here, I would probably starve if I had to eat these dead ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes.
So there you have it. Everything I don’t like and nothing that I do like. Now, how about a list from you?
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